A film adaptation is the transfer of a work or story, in whole or in part, to a feature film. Although often considered a type of derivative work, film adaptation has been conceptualized recently by academic scholars such as Robert Stam as a dialogic process.
A common form of film adaptation is the use of a novel as the basis of a feature film. Other works adapted into films include non-fiction (including journalism), autobiography, comic books, scriptures, plays, historical sources, and other films. From the earliest days of cinema, in nineteenth-century Europe, adaptation from such diverse resources has been a ubiquitous practice of filmmaking.
Elision and interpolation
In 1924, Erich von Stroheim attempted a literal adaptation of Frank Norris's novel McTeague with his film Greed, and the resulting film was 9½ hours long. It was cut, at studio insistence, to four hours, then without Stroheim's input, cut again to around two hours. The end result was a film that was largely incoherent. Since that time, few directors have attempted to put everything in a novel into a film. Therefore, elision is all but essential.
In some cases, film adaptations also interpolate scenes or invent characters. This is especially true when a novel is part of a literary saga. Incidents or quotations from later or earlier novels will be inserted into a single film. Additionally, and far more controversially, filmmakers will invent new characters or create stories that were not present in the source material at all. Given the anticipated audience for a film, the screenwriter, director, or movie studio may wish to increase character time or to invent new characters. For example, William J. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed included a short appearance by a prostitute named Helen. Because the film studio anticipated a female audience for the film and had Meryl Streep for the role, Helen became a significant part of the film. However, characters are also sometimes invented to provide the narrative voice.
Interpretation as adaptation
There have been several notable cases of massive inventive adaptation, including the Roland Joffe adaptation of The Scarlet Letter with explicit sex between Hester Prynn and the minister and Native American obscene puns into a major character and the film's villain. The Charlie Kaufman and "Donald Kaufman" penned Adaptation, credited as an adaptation of the novel The Orchid Thief, was an intentional satire and commentary on the process of film adaptation itself. All of those are cases of Nathaniel Hawthorne's point. The creators of the Gulliver's Travels miniseries interpolated a sanity trial to reflect the ongoing scholarly debate over whether or not Gulliver himself is sane at the conclusion of Book IV. In those cases, adaptation is a form of criticism and recreation as well as translation.
Change is essential and practically unavoidable, mandated both by the constraints of time and medium, but how much is always a balance. Some film theorists have argued that a director should be entirely unconcerned with the source, as a novel is a novel and a film is a film, and the two works of art must be seen as separate entities. Since a transcription of a novel into film is impossible, even holding up a goal of "accuracy" is absurd. Others argue that what a film adaptation does is change to fit (literally, adapt), and the film must be accurate to the effect (aesthetics), the theme, or the message of a novel and that the filmmaker must introduce changes, if necessary, to fit the demands of time and to maximize faithfulness along one of those axes.
In most cases adaptation, the films are required to create identities (for example, a characters' costume or set decor) since they are not specified in the original material. Then, the influence of film-makers may go unrecognised because there is no comparison in the original material even though the new visual identities will affect narrative interpretation. Peter Jackson's adaptations of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit by author JRR Tolkien represent an unusual case since many visual and stylistic details were specified by Tolkien. For the Harry Potter film series, author JK Rowling was closely consulted by the filmmakers, and she provided production designer Stuart Craig with a map of Hogwarts' grounds and also prevented director Alfonso Cuarón from adding a graveyard scene because the graveyard would appear elsewhere in a later novel.
An often overlooked aspect of film adaptation is the inclusion of sound and music. In a literary text, a specific sound effect can often be implied or specified by an event, but in the process of adaptation, filmmakers must determine specific the sound characteristics that subliminally affects narrative interpretation. In some cases of adaptation, music may have been specified in the original material (usually diegetic music). In Stephenie Meyer's 2005 Twilight novel, the characters Edward Cullen and Bella Swan both listen to Debussy's Clair de lune and Edward composes the piece Bella's Lullaby for Bella. While Clair de lune was a pre-existing piece of music, Bella's Lullaby was not and required original music to be composed for the 2008 movie adaptation.
In the 2016 sci-fi film 2BR02B: To Be or Naught to Be adapted from the story by Kurt Vonnegut, the film-makers decided to abandon Vonnegut's choice of music. They stated that they felt that it worked in his prose only because it was not actually heard. Filmmakers' test screenings found that Vonnegut's style of music confused audiences and detracted from narrative comprehension. The film's composer, Leon Coward, stated, "You can try to be as true to Vonnegut's material as possible, but at the end of the day also you’re working with the material that you as a team have generated, not just Vonnegut's, and that’s what you've got to make work."
Stage plays are frequent sources for film adaptations.
Many of William Shakespeare's plays, including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello, have been adapted into films. The first sound adaptation of any Shakespeare play was the 1929 production of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. It was later adapted as both a musical play called Kiss Me, Kate, which opened on Broadway in 1948, and as the 1953 Hollywood musical of the same name. The Taming of the Shrew was again retold in 1999 as a teen comedy set in a high school in 10 Things I Hate about You, and also in 2003 as an urban romantic comedy, Deliver Us from Eva. The 1961 musical film West Side Story was adapted from Romeo and Juliet, with its first incarnation as a Broadway musical play that opened in 1957. The animated film The Lion King (1994) was inspired by Hamlet as well as various traditional African myths, and 2001's O was based on Othello.
Film adaptations of Shakespeare's works in languages other than English are numerous, including Akira Kurosawa's films Throne of Blood (1957, an epic film version of Macbeth), The Bad Sleep Well (1960, inspired by Hamlet) and Ran (1985, based on King Lear); and Vishal Bhardwaj's "Shakespearean trilogy" consisting of Haider (2014, a retelling of Hamlet), Omkara (2006, based on Othello) and Maqbool (2003, based on Macbeth).
Another way in which Shakespearean texts have been incorporated in films is to feature characters who are either actors performing those texts or characters who are somehow influenced or effected by seeing one of Shakespeare's plays, within a larger non-Shakespearean story. Generally, Shakespeare's basic themes or certain elements of the plot will parallel the main plot of the film or become part of a character's development in some way. Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are the two plays which have most often been used in this way. Éric Rohmer's 1992 film Conte d'hiver (A Tale of Winter) is one example. Rohmer uses one scene from Shakepeare's A Winter's Tale as a major plot device within a story that is not based on the play at all.
In Britain, where stage plays tend to be more popular as a form of entertainment than currently in the United States, many films began as a stage productions. Some British films and British/American collaborations that were based on successful British plays include Gaslight (1940), Blithe Spirit (1945), Rope (1948), Look Back in Anger (1959), Oh, What a Lovely War! (1969), Sleuth (1972), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Shirley Valentine (1989), The Madness of King George (1994), The History Boys (2006), Quartet (2012), and The Lady in the Van (2015).
Similarly, hit Broadway plays are often adapted into films, whether from musicals or dramas. Some examples of American film adaptations based on successful Broadway plays are Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Born Yesterday (1950), Harvey (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Odd Couple (1968), The Boys in the Band (1970), Agnes of God (1985), Children of a Lesser God (1986), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Real Women Have Curves (2002), Rabbit Hole (2010), and Fences (2016).
On one hand, theatrical adaptation does not involve as many interpolations or elisions as novel adaptation, but on the other, the demands of scenery and possibilities of motion frequently entail changes from one medium to the other. Film critics will often mention if an adapted play has a static camera or emulates a proscenium arch. Laurence Olivier consciously imitated the arch with his Henry V (1944), having the camera begin to move and to use color stock after the prologue, indicating the passage from physical to imaginative space. Sometimes, the adaptive process can continue after one translation. Mel Brooks' The Producers began as a film in 1967, was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2001, and then adapted again in 2005 as a musical film.
Feature films are occasionally created from television series or television segments. In some cases, the film will offer a longer storyline than the usual television program's format and/or expanded production values. During the 1970s, many UK television series were turned into films including Dad's Army, On the Buses, Steptoe and Son and Porridge. In 1979, The Muppet Movie was a big success. In the adaptation of The X-Files to film, greater effects and a longer plotline were involved. Additionally, adaptations of television shows will offer the viewer the opportunity to see the television show's characters without broadcast restrictions. These additions (nudity, profanity, explicit drug use, and explicit violence) are only rarely a featured adaptive addition (film versions of "procedurals" such as Miami Vice are most inclined to such additions as featured adaptations) – South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is a notable example of a film being more explicit than its parent TV series.
At the same time, some theatrically released films are adaptations of television miniseries events. When national film boards and state-controlled television networks co-exist, filmmakers can sometimes create very long films for television that they may adapt solely for time for theatrical release. Both Ingmar Bergman (notably with Fanny and Alexander but with other films as well) and Lars von Trier have created long television films that they then recut for international distribution.
Even segments of television series have been adapted into feature films. The American television variety show Saturday Night Live has been the origin of a number of films, beginning with The Blues Brothers, which began as a one-off performance by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.
Radio narratives have also provided the basis of film adaptation. In the heyday of radio, radio segments, like television segments today, translated to film on several occasions, usually as shorts. Radio series turned into film series include Dr. Christian, Crime Doctor and The Whistler. Dialog-heavy stories and fantastic stories from radio were also adapted to film (e.g. Fibber McGee and Molly and The Life of Riley). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy began as a radio series for the BBC and then became a novel that was adapted to film.
Comic book adaptation
Comic book characters, particularly superheroes, have long been adapted into film, beginning in the 1940s with Saturday movie serials aimed at children. Superman (1978) and Batman (1989) are two later successful movie adaptations of famous comic book characters. In the early 2000s, blockbusters such as X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) have led to dozens of superhero films. The success of these films has also led to other comic books not necessarily about superheroes being adapted for the big screen, such as Ghost World (2001), From Hell (2001), American Splendor (2003), Sin City (2005), 300 (2007), Wanted (2008), and Whiteout (2009).
The adaptation process for comics is different from that of novels. Many successful comic book series last for several decades and have featured several variations of the characters in that time. Films based on such series usually try to capture the back story and “spirit” of the character instead of adapting a particular storyline. Occasionally, aspects of the characters and their origins are simplified or modernized.
Self-contained graphic novels, and miniseries many of which do not feature superheroes, can be adapted more directly, such as in the case of Road to Perdition (2002) or V for Vendetta (2006). In particular, Robert Rodriguez did not use a screenplay for Sin City but utilized actual panels from writer/artist Frank Miller's series as storyboards to create what Rodriguez regards as a "translation" rather than an adaptation.
Furthermore, some films based on long-running franchises use particular story lines from the franchise as a basis for a plot. The second X-Men film was loosely based on the graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills and the third film on the storyline "The Dark Phoenix Saga". Spider-Man 2 was based on the storyline "Spider-Man No More!" Likewise, Batman Begins owes many of its elements to Miller's "Batman: Year One" and the film's sequel, The Dark Knight, uses subplots from Batman: The Long Halloween.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe starting in 2008 is a shared universe with films combining characters from different works by Marvel Comics. The DC Extended Universe starting in 2013 uses the same model for DC Comics.
Video game adaptation
Video games have also been adapted into films, beginning in the early 1980s. Films closely related to the computer and video game industries were also done in this time, such as Tron and Cloak & Dagger, but only after the release of several films based on well-known brands has this genre become recognized in its own right.
Similar to comic book-based films in the past (especially from 1980s), films based on video games tend to carry a reputation of lackluster quality and receive negative reaction from both film critics and fans of the source material. A number of films have been successful at the box office, such as Mortal Kombat, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but critical reception of the films is either mixed to poor. The trend of mediocre or negative reception of video game films continued unabated until 2019, with the releases of Detective Pikachu and The Angry Birds Movie 2, the first ever two video game films to earn a Rotten Tomatoes score of over 60%, making them "fresh".
Some, such as Super Mario Bros., were particularly negatively received and are considered among the worst films ever made. Super Mario Bros. was criticized for being too dark, violent and unfaithful (in plot) to the popular video game series. Many anime Original Video Animations (OVAs) based on popular games have been released such as Dead Space: Downfall, Halo Legends, Dante's Inferno: An Animated Epic, and numerous films based on the video game series Pokémon.
Among the most well-known video game filmmakers is Uwe Boll, a German writer, director, and producer whose works include House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, BloodRayne, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Postal, and Far Cry, all of which were almost universally panned by critics. In 2016, he retired from filmmaking, citing market failures and funding difficulties.
Another likely reason for the failure of video game adaptations is that structural conversion from video game to film format can be challenging for filmmakers. Nintendo video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto said in a 2007 interview with Edge Magazine:
I think that part of the problem with translating games to movies is that the structure of what makes a good game is very different from the structure of what makes a good movie. Movies are a much more passive medium, where the movie itself is telling a story and you, as the viewer, are relaxing and taking that in passively. Whereas video games are a much more active medium where you are playing along with the story. ... I think that video games, as a whole, have a very simple flow in terms of what’s going on in the game. We make that flow entertaining by implementing many different elements to the video game to keep the player entertained. Movies have much more complex stories, or flow, to them, but the elements that affect that flow are limited in number. So I think that because these surrounding elements in these two different mediums vary so greatly, when you fail to take that into account then you run into problems.
In an interview with Fortune in August 2015, Miyamoto said, "Because games and movies seem like similar mediums, people’s natural expectation is we want to take our games and turn them into movies. … I’ve always felt video games, being an interactive medium, and movies, being a passive medium, mean the two are quite different."
Adaptations from other sources
While documentary films have often been made from journalism and reportage, so too have some dramatic films, including: All the President's Men (1976, adapted from the 1974 book); Miracle, (2004, from an account published shortly after the 1980 "miracle on ice"); and Pushing Tin (1999, from a 1996 New York Times article by Darcy Frey). An Inconvenient Truth is Al Gore's film adaptation of his own Keynote multimedia presentation. The 2011 independent comedy film, Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins was based on Kermode and Mayo's Film Review of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.
Films adapted from songs include Coward of the County, Ode to Billy Joe, Convoy, and Pretty Baby (each from a song of the same name).
Films based on toys include the Transformers franchise and the G.I. Joe films; there is a longer history of animated television series being created simultaneous to toy lines as a marketing tool. Hasbro's plans to for films based on their board games began with 2012's Battleship. While amusement park rides have often been based on action movies, conversely the 1967 Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland was adapted into Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003.
Remakes and film sequels are technically adaptations of the original film. Less direct derivations include The Magnificent Seven from The Seven Samurai, Star Wars from The Hidden Fortress, and Twelve Monkeys from La Jetée.
Many films have been made from mythology and religious texts. Both Greek mythology and the Bible have been adapted frequently. Homer's works have been adapted multiple times in several nations. In these cases, the audience already knows the story well, and so the adaptation will de-emphasize elements of suspense and concentrate instead on detail and phrasing.
Many major film award programs present an award for adapted screenplays, separate from the award for original screenplays.
In the case of a film which was adapted from an unpublished work, however, different awards have different rules around which category the screenplay qualifies for. In 1983, the Canadian Genie Awards rescinded the Best Adapted Screenplay award they had presented to the film Melanie when they learned that the original work had been unpublished; and in 2017, the film Moonlight, which was adapted from an unpublished theatrical play, was classified and nominated as an adapted screenplay by some awards but as an original screenplay by others.
Adaptation of films
When a film's screenplay is original, it can also be the source of derivative works such as novels and plays. For example, movie studios will commission novelizations of their popular titles or sell the rights to their titles to publishing houses. These novelized films will frequently be written on assignment and sometimes written by authors who have only an early script as their source. Consequently, novelizations are quite often changed from the films as they appear in theatres.
Novelization can build up characters and incidents for commercial reasons (e.g. to market a card or computer game, to promote the publisher's "saga" of novels, or to create continuity between films in a series)
There have been instances of novelists who have worked from their own screenplays to create novels at nearly the same time as a film. Both Arthur C. Clarke, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Graham Greene, with The Third Man, have worked from their own film ideas to a novel form (although the novel version of The Third Man was written more to aid in the development of the screenplay than for the purposes of being released as a novel). Both John Sayles and Ingmar Bergman write their film ideas as novels before they begin producing them as films, although neither director has allowed these prose treatments to be published.
Finally, films have inspired and been adapted into plays. John Waters's films have been successfully mounted as plays; both Hairspray and Cry-Baby have been adapted, and other films have spurred subsequent theatrical adaptations. Spamalot is a Broadway play based on Monty Python films. In a rare case of a film being adapted from a stage musical adaptation of a film, in 2005, the film adaptation of the stage musical based on Mel Brooks' classic comedy film The Producers was released.
- Black, Anna (2016). ""...for a father hear a child!" Schubert's Ave Maria and the film 2BR02B". The Schubertian. The Schubert Institute (UK). July (91): 16–19.
- Masson, Sophie (October 19, 2016). "2BR02B: the journey of a dystopian film–an interview with Leon Coward". Feathers of the Firebird (Interview).
- Barnet, Sylvan (1998) . "The Shrew on Stage and Screen". In Heilman, Robert B. (ed.). The Taming of the Shrew. Signet Classic Shakespeare (Second Revised ed.). New York: New American Library. p. 188. ISBN 9780451526793.
- McKernan, Luke and Terris, Olwen (eds.) Walking Shadows: Shakespeare in the National Film and Television Archive (British Film Institute Publishing, 1994). The authors list 45 uses of Hamlet which do not include films of the play itself, on pp.45-66. They list 39 such instances for Romeo and Juliet on pp.141-156, and 23 uses of Othello, on pp.119-131.
- Mendelson, Scott (November 9, 2019). "Box Office: Joker Becomes The Most Profitable Comic Book Movie Ever". Forbes. Retrieved November 9, 2019.
- Cook, Meghan (19 August 2019). "Popular movies inspired by video games, ranked from worst to best". Business Insider. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
- "'The market is dead': Schlock director Uwe Boll's Rampage of terrible films is finished". Metro News. Archived from the original on 2016-10-27. Retrieved 2019-09-05.
- "Miyamoto: The Interview". Edge Magazine. November 27, 2007. Archived from the original on May 3, 2012. Retrieved August 9, 2010.
- Morris, Chris (August 21, 2015). "Shigeru Miyamoto Talks Nintendo's Return to the Movie World". Fortune. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
- "Melanie adaptation Genie returned". Cinema Canada, No. 96 (May 1983). p. 12.
- "Oscars: Moonlight ineligible for Best Original Screenplay". Entertainment Weekly, December 15, 2016.
- Eisenstein, Sergei. "Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today." Film Form Dennis Dobson, trans. 1951.
- Literature/Film Quarterly, journal published by Salisbury University
- Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance, published by Intellect
- Adaptation, journal published by Oxford University Press
- Movie Adaptation Database, UC Berkeley Media Resources Center
- The history of Erich von Stroheim's Greed, from welcometosilentmovies.com
- The Art of Adaptation from hollywoodlitsales.com
- Hutcheon, Linda, with Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2013.
- Leitch, Thomas (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies. Oxford: OUP, 2017.
- Murray, Simone. The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2012.
- Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. London: Routledge, 2006.